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Interview: Mal Pope, singer, songwriter, broadcaster

01 December 2023

‘I prefer radio because it is so intimate, and often the pictures are better’

Everyone sings in Wales. I was brought up in a little gospel hall in Swansea, where we sang a cappella in the Sunday-morning service. I soon found my harmony and joined in. My great-grandfather wrote hymns, and my grandmother was a fantastic pianist and chapel organist. My brother brought a guitar home from a Spanish holiday he went on with his school. I pinched it at the age of seven, and started writing songs when I was nine.

I rather mistakenly despised the hymns of Sankey,
and took my influence from my brother’s record collection of Cat Stevens and Simon and Garfunkel. In later years, I’ve realised what a wonderful background I had with those old hymns.

I always wanted to be a singer.
My parents were teachers; so I did go to Cambridge University, under duress, to study economics. I nearly changed to theology, and spent a lovely afternoon chatting to a Welsh theology Fellow from my college who told me it wasn’t for me. It was Rowan Williams.

I sent a tape of my songs when I was 12 years old to John Peel, on Radio 1,
and, after performing a session for his show, I was signed to Elton John’s Rocket Record Company. Elton was my inspiration and my mentor, and working with him on my songs at Abbey Road Studios will always be a highlight of my life.

I fell into broadcasting.
I was signed to Harvey Goldsmith, the biggest rock promoter in the world, in 1979, but the world had gone punk. I knew people at the BBC; so I started with them as a researcher. Radio and television are very different disciplines. I think I prefer radio, because it is so intimate, and often the pictures are better.

I’ve always been envious of the Scots and Irish,
because of how they have taken their culture on to the stage and screen. I wrote [the musical] Amazing Grace during the year before the centenary of the 1904 Welsh Revival, and I remember walking down the street thinking someone should mark the event. I said to myself . . . “I’ll write a musical.”

In the musical, I tried to point out that, with a Revival, other things arise,
like power, jealousy, temptation. Evan Roberts, the Revivalist, was a remarkable young man who suffered a number of breakdowns and finally stopped preaching altogether, even after the Western Mail said he had the whole of Wales in the palm of his hand. Some of his biggest critics were ministers of some of the biggest chapels in Wales, that couldn’t quite cope with this young ex-miner telling them God had spoken directly to him.

The Revival musical sold out the Wales Millennium Centre,
and I was working with the Olivier-award-winning director Michael Bogdanov. The pressure was on for a follow-up, and I chose to write a musical about Tommy Farr and boxing. Again, it was a Welsh story, but with an international perspective, as Farr fought Joe Louis at the Yankee Stadium in 1937. After that, I wrote a musical about three mums who met every day for coffee, called The Cappuccino Girls.

My proudest achievement?
Outside of being a dad and grandfather, I recently celebrated my golden jubilee of making records with a sold-out show at the Swansea Grand Theatre. There was a lot of love in the room that night.

Wales was given its own fourth channel, S4C.
At the time, no one was interested in buying Welsh-language drama — that’s changed since the Scandi dramas — so they decided to invest in animation, where the characters could speak in any language. I started with SuperTed before going global with Fireman Sam. I sang in English and Welsh; so some territories took the Welsh-language version of the song for political reasons.

My Welsh isn’t as good as it should be,
but it’s a natural Wenglish, where English words sometimes have to fill the gaps. It was the language of my childhood which has found a renaissance in recent years, which is wonderful.

Last year, I sat in for a few shows over Christmas on Premier Christian Radio,
and interviewed Fr Fadi Diab, Rector of St Andrew’s, Ramallah. As I explained I was broadcasting from my shed in Swansea, he said: “I know Swansea.” Two women from the Bible College of Wales, in Swansea, had gone to Ramallah and set up a school for girls in 1947. It was almost a direct line from the Welsh Revival to the Holy Land, and it was still well loved and used. I ended the conversation saying if there was anything I could ever do. . . That led to being invited to host a concert at Westminster Cathedral last January. The concert also features the London Welsh Male Voice Choir; so this concert for the Friends of the Holy Land on 14 December seems a very natural event to be involved with.

I have a busy month with a charity I’ve worked with for the past eight years, in Wales, called Everyone Deserves a Christmas.
Every year, we put together hampers for families who wouldn’t have a traditional Christmas. My job is to record a new record every year to help raise funds and awareness. I’m out most evenings in December singing the song at carol services all over the country.

I always say the best decision I made in life was choosing my parents.
I had an idyllic childhood, with a wonderfully supportive family, and, the older I become, the more I realise the debt I owe to my godly family. For me to be signing to Elton John’s label when I was 13 was interesting for my gospel-hall parents, but I will always remember my dad chatting to Elton about gardening and roses when I first met him in 1973.

I always say I gave myself to God after a life of sin and debauchery aged eight. . .
God wasn’t somewhere out there when I was growing up. He was everywhere in my home and family, from the early-morning family Bible reading and prayers, to singing “Gentle Jesus” every night with my mum.

It’s been quite a journey.
What was once black-and-white now has many more grey areas, but, as the hymn says, “O Love that wilt not let me go. . .”

Injustice, selfishness, and people representing my Lord in ways I don’t recognise
— those make me angry. “The greatest of these is Love”, but sometimes it’s hard to see in those who claim to love God.

Family, kids, and grandkids around the dinner table make me happy,
when they’re laughing, joking, and giving me a hard time. By the way, I’m a very youthful rock ’n’ roll grandfather.

I live in Mumbles, five minutes from the sea.
When I stand here and listen to the waves, I hear the voice of God.

I think my generation has so much to answer for.
We had it all, and usually for free, and we’ve made so many mistakes. As I see and hear young idealistic people, I think we might be in safer hands. On a personal note, I still dream big dreams. I always look at Moses, who finally got to do his best work in his eighties, after years of training in the wilderness. I just hope my wilderness experiences bear some fruit in the future.

I pray for the kids and grandkids.
I pray for understanding. I pray that God will touch me again like he has in the past. I pray to be useful, hopeful, and not become cynical.

I’ve always loved Peter,
the big fisherman who would die for his friend and then denied him. He was featured on my first album I wrote when I was 12, in a song called, “Why Did You Desert Me?”, and will feature in my new single in the New Year, called “Letting You Down”. I’m sure he would have some stories to tell, and we would weep and laugh together over some newly turned water into wine.

Mal Pope was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

He presents the Christmas Concert in aid of Friends of the Holy Land, with the London Welsh Male Voice Choir, on Thursday 14 December, 7.30 p.m., at Our Lady of Victories, Kensington High Street, London W8.


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